Jesus kept his gaze fixed firmly on Israel.
by Jeffrey Still | November 07 2023
It might be one of the biggest and longest-lasting historical ironies. Gentiles (i.e., non‑Jewish people of “the nations,” a.k.a. Goyim) came to embrace the message of Messiah Jesus from their Jewish neighbors in such high numbers that faith in Jesus slowly came to be known as an entirely Gentile thing. But Jesus himself did not personally embrace the Gentiles during his ministry. In fact, he largely avoided them.
As a Gentile follower of Jesus myself, I find it a bit curious how rarely other Gentile believers seem to notice this. But more significantly, as a person of European heritage, it is deeply grievous to me that the history of European antisemitism seems primarily to blame for the fact that many Jewish people think that Jesus was a Gentile religious leader.1
When we examine what Jesus actually said about Gentiles, especially in the historical context of first-century Israel, it becomes clear that Jesus was every bit a Jewish rabbi of his day, but one who had a unique confidence in the power of God to redeem the whole world.
To understand Jesus, you have to understand the world of Israel in the first century. The Jewish people in that time were not well disposed to Gentiles, and for good reasons.
For one, the Law of Moses commanded the Jewish people to be separate from their pagan neighbors. God didn’t want them to be corrupted by the cultures or religions of the world. Pagan religions had been a huge snare for Israel throughout its history and were a main cause behind all of the heartaches and pains of Jewish life in the first century. So, the people took these commandments very seriously.
But keeping your distance from Gentiles was hard to do when Gentiles were imposing themselves on the nation. First, there were the Roman overlords, whose taxation and occupying armies leeched off the people’s resources. Then there was the Herodian monarchy, a corrupt and despotic puppet government that tried to claim the throne of David, though they weren’t really Jewish. And then just across the borders were the old pagan enemies of Israel, like Tyre and Sidon—if the Roman overlords ever went away, they’d probably become an imminent threat again.
So, the common expectation would be for the Messiah to openly oppose the Gentiles. In fact, the Messiah was rather expected to lead a military coup to overthrow them. Jesus completely disappointed those expectations. But he didn’t then cozy up to the Gentiles either. Jesus’ understanding of the relationship between Israel and the Gentiles was more complex than the simple love ’em or hate ’em choice that people expected of him.
In the gospel biographies of Jesus, there are two things that stand out about Jesus’ attitude toward the Gentiles.
First, it’s clear that Gentiles are not top-of-mind for Jesus. He rarely ever mentions them, and he rarely interacts directly with them.
The longest dialog he has with any Gentile is his terse conversation with the Roman governor, Pilate, who’s about to have him executed (John 18:33–38). His second longest conversation with a Gentile is his conversation with a Canaanite woman. And that interaction makes it patently obvious that he’s in no rush to pursue followers among the Gentiles (Matthew 15:21–28). “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he tells her (emphasis added).
When Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the good news of the coming kingdom of God, he explicitly tells them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans”2 (Matthew 10:5, emphasis added).
Second, Jesus’ understanding of the Gentiles was nuanced.
Often, his view of Gentiles seems to be rather negative.
But on the other hand, Jesus is open to the Gentiles when they come in faith. Though he was not quick to start a friendly relationship with the Canaanite woman, he ultimately grants her request for help and gives her the highest praise of anyone he encounters, “O woman, great is your faith!” (Matthew 15:28).
In another place in the gospels, Jewish leaders urge Jesus to come help a Roman centurion because he “loves our nation.” Jesus agrees and starts to go with them. But then a message comes from the centurion telling Jesus, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed” (Luke 7:5–9).
Jesus is so impressed by this statement that he remarks, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (v. 10). Then he grants the request.
So, though Jesus never seeks out Gentiles for teaching or healing, he is willing to help Gentiles who come to Israel with a posture of humility and faith. In this, he is very much like the prophet Elisha, who performed miracles on behalf of Gentiles in need (2 Kings 5:1–19).
Though Jesus never pursues the Gentiles, he clearly sees salvation for peoples of the non-Jewish nations as an important part of the outcome of his ministry.
Hope for the non-Jewish nations was foretold in the prophets (Isaiah 2:1–5, 42:1–4; Zechariah 8:20–23, et al.) despite many warnings of divine judgment. Jesus affirms this teaching and retains the very ominous warning tone that is typical of the prophets.
For instance, after discovering the faith of the Roman centurion, he tells his countrymen standing nearby:
I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:9–12)
Clearly Jesus thinks that Israel in his day has some serious problems. Thus, he here laments that some Israelites would turn away from God while even some pagan Gentiles would seek out the God of Abraham in faith.
That’s not a ringing endorsement of the Gentiles. But it does imagine a future where Gentiles stream to Israel as the prophets had foreseen.
So, Jesus’ attention stays fixed on Israel during his ministry. And he is followed only by Jewish disciples during his lifetime. However, his focus broadens at the end of the story. In his final charge to his disciples, he says,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18–20, emphasis added; cf. Acts 2:6–8)
Interestingly, Jesus only includes Gentile nations in his mission after he has been executed by the Romans and risen from the dead.3 Why is that?
The reason is revealed in what Jesus tells his disciples at one point after his resurrection:
Thus it is written, that the Messiah should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in [Jerusalem] until you are clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:46–49, emphasis added)
What we see here is another example of how in all things, Jesus was deeply committed to the Hebrew Scriptures. The Torah clearly told of a priority for the redemption of the world to start with and come through the family of Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3), and the Psalms and the Prophets affirmed that priority. So, Jesus does the same.
What Jesus says about the Gentiles is ultimately positive, but only ultimately. He shared the opinion of the other rabbis of his era that the beliefs and practices of the Gentiles—not least, their political oppression of Israel—were extremely problematic. He certainly didn’t think of himself as starting a new religion of Judaism for Gentiles. Jesus’ mission was to fulfill the story of the Hebrew Scriptures.
That story had the redemption of the whole world in mind from the start. It was something that God planned to do through the family of Abraham, not despite it. The Messiah had to start with Israel, creating a community of Messianic faith that could then go and proclaim good news to the world.
According to the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel was supposed to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). When Jesus references that idea in his own teaching he adds,
Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:15–16)
1. European antisemitism predates the rise of Christianity and postdates the ebb of Christianity in Europe. The great tragedy of Christian history is that belief in the Jewish Messiah did not abate the antisemitism (and other forms of tribalism) among our European forebears but was more often used to justify it.
2. In this article, I’m not counting the Samaritans (remnants of the old kingdom of Northern Israel) as Gentiles, though that wouldn’t change much if we did. Jesus is recorded to have ministered in at least one Samaritan town (John 4:1–42), but he did not spend much time there, and he even told his disciples to avoid the Samaritans when he sent them out to proclaim the gospel.
3. For those who doubt the resurrection of Jesus, they could obviously hypothesize that Jesus was just a normal rabbi who wasn’t at all interested in the Gentiles. The theory would go that it was only after a lot of Gentile converts came into the Messianic community that the gospel writers went back and added Jesus talking about a mission to the Gentiles in the content they made up about the resurrection.
One problem with that theory is that it imagines the gospel writers to be creatively inventing things for Jesus to say, but also imagines them as oddly cautious inventors. If they were so prone to invention, why not put positive words about the Gentiles in Jesus’ mouth a lot more often and before his crucifixion? Why include all those apparently negative things Jesus said about Gentiles along with the story of the Canaanite woman?
In this, as with many other issues, the theory that the gospel writers invented a lot of their content immediately raises a whole load of questions about why they didn’t do a more thorough job of it. Those theories essentially paint the gospel writers as extremely sloppy liars. But a close reading of their books shows them all to be extremely careful authors.